One of the growing trends in online theatre is to run encore performances of original livestreams much as the same way cinemas have been doing – or rather used to do when they could actually operate. This was, in essence, the bedrock of the National Theatre’s 16 week season during #lockdown1. A particular pioneer in this field has been director Adam Lenson and his work at Southwark Playhouse. The latter is currently encore streaming two of his recent shows the first of which Public Domain opened just last week and the second The Fabulist Fox Sister which was captured before Christmas; they make for an interesting pair.
It’s a monologue musical which is, I think, a fairly unusual hybrid by Luke Bateman and Michael Conley; the latter is also the sole performer though he is accompanied by two musicians Tamara Saringer and Becky Brass. Conley plays Kate Fox the inadvertent inventor of the cult of spiritualism in the middle of the nineteenth century which made séances all the rage in America and Europe. She was the youngest of three sisters and in various combinations the trio went into business, made money, became celebrated and then rapidly lost everything when Maggie, the middle sister, confessed that what they had been doing was hoodwinking the public all along. Bateman and Conley’s chronologically organised script plays fast and loose with the truth, though it is never made clear what that actually is, as mediated through the reminiscences of an increasingly unreliable narrator. She sees herself as the main driving force behind the sisters’ success but as she is acting as her own spin doctor it is deliberately difficult to tell. Though there may well have been a concrete plan behind the scam the sisters pulled much of it seems to have been circumstance as much as a deliberate attempt at fraud. There’s an upsurge of people who wish to contact departed relatives once the American Civil War begins and it becomes all to easy to prey on their gullibility. In any case departed souls are not Kate’s only interest in spirits; she gets heavily involved with both Mr Beam and Mr Livet (first names Jim and Glen) and the tale we are hearing may well be clouded by her association with them as much as anything else.
Conley plays Kate as archly waspish and sardonic with a naughty twinkle in her eye and an interestingly anachronistic line in modern day swearing, although this does start to jar after a while. The songs are delivered very well and the lyrics are wittily cruel – “I don’t want your little life” (s)he sings as to her mother as she heads off for New York and fame and fortune. A simple Victorian parlour setting is realised with high backed armchair, a lacily-clothed table and swags of red curtaining (Libby Todd) and Conley dresses in a high-necked black gown and with tightly-bunned hair presents an absolute front of respectability; Matt Daw’s subtle lighting suggests an era of gas lamps and candlelight. At the start there is a notice declaring that all camera angles were instinctively chosen live on the night rather than preplanned. This successfully gives an aura of a real performance though the intermittent use of an overhead shot was slightly baffling and threatened to destroy said illusion. I wasn’t so sure about the use of canned applause/laughter which made it too much like a studio bound sitcom for my liking.
With theatres being closed now – even as places of work – it may well be that encores of previously streamed live performances are going to become the norm. The big advantage to the audience, of course, is of not being tied to a particular date and time to watch but that also means the communal experience is somewhat dissipated. However, as I seem to have been saying regularly for days weeks months now, anything that can be done to keep the art form afloat must be better than doing nothing and bravo to Southwark Playhouse for leading the way. Next up from them is an encore screening of the brilliant and try not to miss it The Poltergeist – although there’s no actual ghosts in that one either!
Production photos by Jane Hobson
The Fabulist Fox Sister is available on the Southwark Playhouse website – click here
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